After four years of journalism courses at Western Kentucky University, Tuwanda Coleman walked into her advisers’ office firmly declaring she no longer wished to pursue a career as a reporter.
“I just knew that I was really a soft-hearted person and hard news scared me a little bit,” Coleman says.
Although Coleman no longer wished to be in front of the camera, she still maintained her passion for television and news. So when the opportunity arose to work as a camera person, Coleman jumped to it. Accepting the position two weeks after graduation, Coleman became the first female, and first African American, camera person at News Channel 5 in Nashville, Tenn.
The Kentucky native’s engaging work propelled her to continually receive offers to take on additional roles. And 30 years later, Coleman remains with News Channel 5, where she currently produces and field reports for Nashville’s highly rated talk show, “Talk Of The Town.” She also hosts “The Plus Side of Nashville” and “Taste of The Town,” produces telethons, and serves as internship coordinator for her department.
For Coleman, her path in the broadcast industry was unlike many others. But her college adviser saw something special in the graduating senior who at the last minute decided to not pursue reporting. Let her story be an illustration to all of those who are not exactly sure what direction they want their career to go in, but have a passion for television. Take the time to do a little bit of everything, and see where your talents fit best, and where you can make the most impact.
The Emmy-nominated journalist continues to take on a variety of positions not only within NewsChannel 5, but also in the Nashville community as well. Tuwanda lends her to support to numerous boards and organizations, including the Oasis Center, the National Association of Television Arts and Sciences, YMCA Black Achievers, Nashville Film Festival, Nashville Parent Magazine Advisory Board, the American Red Cross Public Relations Board, and Youth About Business. She is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
Coleman, through her energetic and ambitious attitude continues to motivate another generation of journalist to pursue the field, which has kept a mile-wide smile on her face for 30 years.
BWIB was honored to speak with a staple personality in the Nashville community. Read about how she has transitioned and excelled at a number of positions and learn what keeps her going as a Black Woman in Broadcast.
You were the first female, African American cameraperson at News Channel 5. What was that experience like?
I was working with much older men, many of them in their 30s at the time and I was 22…men in their late 40s, 50s, then you got this fresh out of college girl who just got a degree. Most of them did not have degrees so some of them resented me. And I was a little bit of a token, because here I come with no experience whatsoever. But I had a college degree and I was African American and so they kind of felt like I was a token and perhaps I was, but if I did not meet the requirements as far as qualifications for the job I would not have gotten the job.
You constantly took on new positions. Why was that, and what made you decide ultimately to go into producing?
I applied for the position as a camera person and that was to primarily get my foot in the door…. I was a camera person, I did that for 10 years, and while I was there I just started looking at all the other jobs. I was seeing what producers did, what directors did. I saw that my skill set did best as a producer, because I do like to write, but I like to write at my own pace versus hard news. [With] “Talk of the Town,” it was the way that I could write but it was not hard news and that is why I aspired to be a producer on “Talk of the Town.”
In the beginning stages of your career were there any other black producers that you were able to go to for mentorship?
When I first started working here, I became friends with Henrietta [Insert Last Name], who was the producer on “Talk of the Town” and I used to ask her about my writing skills and they improved the more I [used] them. It’s like anything else. The more you do it the better you get at it. But at the time I had no black female mentors [as a camera person]. I got the chance to work with Henrietta and she kind of helped me learn the ropes, having not ever produced for a talk show before. But shortly after I started, Henrietta quit and I was kind of left once again on my own trying to figure these things out and I didn’t have a mentor at that time. I had to draw form within and watch others, quietly see how they went about their jobs and then I would pick up from this person and pick up from that person to become the producer that I am today.
How did you advance to your position as producer for “Talk of the Town?”
As a camera person, whenever there were special projects I would get the opportunity to write. I also got the chance to do black history salute and they turned that over to me after they saw that I had pretty good writing skills, and that I could do the job. And I had the chance to do black history salute every February; I wrote the research the pictures and everything behind that.
Then, a company came in, bought the station and said, “We believe in hiring from within; we want to find out what everybody’s goal is.” I told them I wanted to be a “Talk of the Town” producer and so they basically created a position for me. And I really feel like if they [saw] that every task that I had been given prior that I did a great job with. I also had a great attitude, there were so many things that went into getting me that opportunity to be an associate producer for “Talk of the Town” because they created that position for me and they said if you do good with this we will make you a full time producer.
As a producer how do you make sure to include guests that reflect the entire, diverse Nashville community?
That is something that has been in front of my face for a while because if I don’t think of it no one else will think of it. We unfortunately sometimes get to booking guests and then we start to realize, you know, that we have not had anyone of color on the show in a month. It just kinds of happens and we start booking and filling holes then it’s up to us as producers to seek out people of color and often what I’ll do is I will get people who are referred to me, sometimes I will just look in the community or I will try to bring back a guest who was really good on the show and see if they can do other things. So there have been opportunities where I can include regulars on the show who are people of color so we know they will be on at least once a month so that’s kind of been my way of doing. As the only person of color on the staff it’s often left up to me because if I don’t see it, it does not seem like anyone else will see it.
Additionally, whenever we have models we definitely let the guest know that we want models of diverse background, color, shape—all races and backgrounds. We definitely stress that when guests bring on models, whether it’s for a segment on hair, make-up or fashion we definitely stress that. Unfortunately I had the two, three, maybe four or five times where people say no to me. Who I know will be great guests on the show but don’t want the opportunity, which is often unfortunate I think because it looks as if we are not seeking them out although we are. And they pass over that opportunity and for me that is very frustrating when you give someone an opportunity to have basically a free four-minute commercial to plug their business or whatever it is they do and they don’t accept it.
How did you make the transition from being behind the camera to being in front of the camera?
I was given the position not like a traditional reporter. How my position came about ironically, I was getting ready to go on vacation when the station was going to be holding our annual anniversary. I was going to be getting my 20th anniversary award but I was not able to be there and the station manager asked would I mind doing something on tape and I said absolutely I would be happy to.
So off the top of my head I sat in front of the camera and started out on why I wished I could be there … and how I loved working at the station and my station manager saw me on camera and she thought that I was a natural. She said I looked great and sounded well and basically gave me the opportunity at that point to think about [being on camera]. She said there was no pressure but if you don’t feel like that’s something you want to do you don’t have to do. But I thought about it long and hard and decided it was something that I wanted to do and that’s where I am.
What would you say to others who don’t necessarily start off in on-camera positions?
It is something that I cannot stress enough to other young women who want to go into television: you have to start somewhere and often that is not at the top. There is such a thing as being realistic about journalism and television. You’re going to be able to start at a smaller TV station, a smaller market. You’re going to be able to go there and make your mistakes and not have 500,000 people looking at you and may only have 2,500 people looking at you or 30,000 but you can make your mistakes there. You’re going to be doing a lot of jobs and you’re going to be able to get good at all those jobs.
But often I think we get a little bit anxious to start making money and want to immediately be in front of the camera and we do not want to take the time to sort of pay our dues. But at the same time it’s going to make you a better reporter, producer, whatever, because you’re going to be able to slowly work your way up and get better at everything.
So be patient and know that you are honing your craft when you first start off; you are getting better at writing, and better at being in front of a live audience, and you are going to make some mistakes. But that’s natural and that’s expected in a small market so by the time you get to a bigger market you would have already made those mistakes.
What obstacles have you had to overcome in your career that related specifically to being a black woman in broadcast?
There have been a few occasions when I worked with clients of the show who had expected someone other than myself and they showed it in the way they acted. Fortunately, I had a station that sort of severed the ties because of the way they treated me. So I’ve had that more than anything, the public as a whole versus the place where I work. were very supportive but Sometimes you go out in public and you’re trying to get people who may not be expecting the reporter to be a person of color; they were maybe expecting someone else. And you get really a bad feeling with it; I don’t think I have ever felt so belittled and shocked. I was very proud of how my station handled it when I went back and told them that the person really wanted to work with another reporter and basically they cancelled the account with that person and refused to work with that company. Since this is my first and only job as a reporter, I have not had to go to another market but sometimes it’s experiences like that, which basically reminded me of my color.
What advice would you give to other women who are considering pursuing journalism?
I would definitely say, read, work on English and writing skills particularly if you’re interested in being a reporter. As a reporter that’s what you do all day, you write and you have to articulate what it is that you’ve written. Also you have to pitch stories so you have to read the newspaper and keep up with current events. I think a lot of people think, “Well as a reporter I will go in and the assistant editor will give me a story to cover.” Well there may be those days. But then also our reporters are required to bring in four to five ideas of their own so that means you have to keep up with what is going on in the community.
It is so disheartening when I hear young people say, “Well I don’t really watch the news.” You want to be on it but you don’t watch it? How is that? It’s the career you want to be a part of but you don’t actively participate in seeing how it’s done?
This business is changing and it’s one of those things as the years go by more and more people are turning to social media and getting ideas from the Internet versus the newspaper, which has fallen by the way.
However, you get your information, stay on top of current events and know a little something about your state government. That’s a little piece of advice an adviser gave me years ago. As a reporter you may be asked to cover politics one day, and you may be sent out to cover a government story another day; you need to know a little something about everything and talk intelligibly about it. So make sure you follow political arenas and you keep up with how government is run because otherwise how are you going to go out and be a reporter? You can’t go out and gather the facts and convey them back to us intelligibly because you don’t even know them yourself. So know a little something about everything, keep up with current events, become a news junkie, so if someone asks you who is the Prime Minister of France you’re going to know.
[End of Q & A]